UC San Diego Researchers Eye 3D Printed Nano-Fish As New Drug Delivery System

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A team of engineers working at the University of California, San Diego has developed a method for 3D printing fish-shaped microrobots that can propel themselves through liquids and be steered by a remote operator with magnets. The new microrobots were described in this month’s issue of Advanced Materials, and researchers hope that the breakthrough locomotive properties of the fish will bring developers closer than ever to realizing a viable microrobot-based drug delivery system.

Called microfish by its inventors, the robots are smaller than the width of a human hair and, unlike their predecessors, these structures have complex shapes that allow them to propel themselves forward. The fish have tail fins made of platinum nanoparticles and a hydrogen peroxide coating. When placed in liquid, the fish propel themselves forward through a naturally occurring chemical reaction between the platinum and the hydrogen peroxide. The fish are also manufactured with a magnetized iron oxide nanoparticle head. Researchers are able to steer the microfish as they swim by manipulating the magnetic fields around them. Earlier attempts to incorporate propulsion and steering capabilities into microrobots have relied on “microjet engines, microdrillers, and microrockets,” which are all typically cylindrical in shape and do not lend well to sophisticated maneuvering.

After establishing their manufacturing process, the team of researchers set about testing several use cases for their new microfish. First, they embedded anti-toxin nanoparticles throughout the fish’s body and then tested their ability to neutralize toxins in a liquid pool. The anti-toxin nanoparticles used were well suited to neutralizing toxins, and in an effort to improve the functionality of the fish, researchers designed the anti-toxin nanoparticles to emit a red glow when in contact with a toxin, resulting in a fish that could double as a toxin detector and neutralizer.

Outside of toxin detection and neutralization, researchers have there cross hairs set on creating a new precision drug delivery system with the microfish. “The next thing we could explore is to encapsulate medicines inside the microfish and use them for directed drug delivery," explains Jinxing Li, researcher on the project and co-author of the study. “Another exciting possibility we could explore is to encapsulate medicines inside the microfish and use them for directed drug delivery." He goes on to outline other medical applications, “It’s my personal hope to further this research to eventually develop surgical microrobots that operate safer and with more precision.”


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